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Physics Men vs. Women in Physics Careers

  1. Nov 25, 2004 #1
    It's no secret that most people in physics are men. Is this due to an inherent different in the abilities of men and women to learn physics, or rather that women simply have not been encouraged enough to do physics. By the first case, I mean that are the differences ingrained from birth, and that men are simply superior when it comes to physics? Has it been shown that in general, men have better analytical ability than women? Is this why some women who are not that good are still able to get into good graduate school? Is this fair that they only have to compete against other women, when some men who are much better are not accepted?

    Although some women do pretty well, it is very rare to find a woman who is brilliant in physics. I do not think this is the environmental factor, and attribute it to an inherent difference in abilities. Even if you encourage a women from birth to do physics, and she is motivated, the best she could ever do would never compare to the best a man could do.

    I understand that a woman can perform much better than men in physics, but why is it that on average you rarely see women in graduate school? Perhaps it is not suitable for them only because they cannot handle the work. On average, their undergraduate preparation is worse than men's, they score lower on the physics gre. Of course, this is not true in every case, but it is definitely true in most cases.

    Similarly, why are most great physics foreign scientists? I believe they have an inherent better analytical ability than non foreign scientists.
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  3. Nov 25, 2004 #2
    I do not agree with this because you are comparing one country to the rest of the world, and when you do this it is easy to see that the rest of the world will almost always dominate. If you were to compare the number of great scientists in one country to the number of great scientists in another it would probably be a little more even.

    I am not sure about women in physics. Women seem to do well in other sciences (biology, chemistry) My only guess would be the math factor of physics, but then why are women not that good at math? Maybe we will see a big rise in women in physics and math over the next 50-100 years. Women just got the right to vote in what, 1917 or something, and there are still complaints about women not getting paid equally. As for women getting accepted into grad school because they are women, well I feel that is terrible. Whether you are white, black, brown, green, male, female, you should be accepted on your academic record, not your physical features.
  4. Nov 25, 2004 #3
    I definitely see the lack of women in physics as an issue, and perhaps, as you suggested, there will be more women in the future in this field. However, this increase should be due to the increase in the ability of the women, and not only to equalize the number of females and males. However, if the difference in math ability between gender IS something inherent from birth, then this will not happen, and we will see more lower ability women being accepted unfairly over more suitable men.

    I believe you should be accepted by your academic record as well. However, it is less competitive for women in physics and their academic records (in general) do not compare to those of men at all. So there are women who simply do get in just because of their physical features and not their minds, ability, or other relevant attributes.
  5. Nov 25, 2004 #4

    Math Is Hard

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    yxgao, where did you get your GRE score data?
  6. Nov 25, 2004 #5


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    I have a theory about this; the shape of women's heads is such that it minimizes the surface area thusly causing their heads to become overheated more quickly than their male counterparts. This why women should stick to less taxing tasks such as housework, child-rearing and molecular biology.......
  7. Nov 25, 2004 #6
    Well in a gross generalization, it's been my observation that women don't have the same tendancy as men to COMPLETELY get lost in one thing. I know it's an old record, but men do seem to have a more one-tracked mind. How many men do you know who get completely lost in computers? Want to know everything there is to know about them, read everything they can get their hands on and just get completely lost in their hobby. This of course is not just computers, it applies to whatever hobby (be it productive or not), and in the case of physics, i'd imagine that this tendency to completely lose oneself in the work would mean that they get better.

    I do think this is the reason that in most fields the ones that excell, and are that cream of the crop are usually male, even though that when looking at all the "Normal" ones, women may be of equal numbers/skills. Of course there are always exceptions, and like i said it is a gross generalization that is only based on my observations and nothing scientific :)
  8. Nov 25, 2004 #7
    I read this on a physics newsgroup, but it was a while ago so I could be wrong.

    Dracovich - what do you think will happen if there women tended to get lost completely in one thing too? Do you think they will come out to have equal mathematical abilities, or do you think there will still be other inherent differences?
  9. Nov 26, 2004 #8
    Social construction, that's all I can say.

    The approach to physics and engineering is basically the same, i guess. Men prefer looking at the bigger picture. A certain law or model is like a machine, you put in A, you get B. To understand physics, you have to understand the mechanism behind everything, and not just memorize a list of tables, say if you put in A, you get B, E you get F etc. Most women excel in chemistry or biology because it pays more attention to the details.

    that's just based on my experience anyway.
  10. Nov 26, 2004 #9
    seems that men get a better ability in math and phy but i really don't want to admitt that (for i'm a girl as u can see...)
  11. Nov 26, 2004 #10


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    Hasn't there been some research about men being "better" in getting 3D structures etc. while women do better in interlaced problems ? Overall I'd say all this is just historical baggage, I'd hope the percentages would get more even with a higher rate than at present.
  12. Nov 26, 2004 #11


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    Going on very little sleep, so I'll forego citations until requested :tongue2: Or you can just ask google scholar.

    As far as general intelligence, no significant differences have been found between men and women. Men outperform women in visual-spatial tasks. Women outperform men in verbal and language-related tasks. Mental activity in men (while performing some task) tends to be localized, while, in women, it tends to be diffuse. Preface all preceding statements with "generally".

    Increasing diversity at any cost isn't a practice I support either.

    I think the choice of profession is influenced more by social roles than individual abilities. First, consider exposure. How much time do little boys spend with a) mom in the kitchen vs. b) dad in the garage? Same question for girls?
    That's all for now :zzz:
  13. Nov 26, 2004 #12


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    Actually, I'll pass on the social argument; It would be way too long and messy.
    I'll assume social gender roles are not a factor.

    I am a woman BTW. The biggest difference I notice in dealing with physics, logic, and math (plm) vs. other fields is context; Establishing some context in which to place some given content is my first, most natural reaction and is essential to the way I think. Establishing that context is most often troublesome in plm. I notice no difference with regard to details, generalities, level of abstraction or complexity.

    As a very simple example, in [tex]A \rightarrow B[/tex], A and B provide the context for each other. Of the readings "if A, then B" and "A implies B", the latter is much easier for me to analyze (it's meaning is clearer & more palpable) because the relation between A and B is stronger & more obvious (context being established via relations/connections).

    When an argument is presented in a string of unrelated bits which are not tied together until the end, as is the case in many proofs, the meaningfulness or relevance of each bit is, at best, obscure, at worst, nonexistent. Thus the argument is more diffucult to follow; context is not established until the end. However, if each new bit of content is immediately tied to its predecessor, the difficulty disappears. It is not a matter of details, generalities, level of abstraction or complexity: it's context. And the establishment of context depends on the presentation.

    If you reread previous comments in this thread, especially the gender performance differences, with context establishment in mind, you may gain some insight into a possible reason for the differences.

    Well, I'm very tired so if that was rambling nonsense, sorry, I tried. Er, I tried not to... whatever.

    Happy thoughts,
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2004
  14. Nov 26, 2004 #13


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    Coffee is kicking in :bugeye:

    Two quick points.

    1) To clarify, establishing context was not meant as merely making connections between concepts, as surely everyone must do so. The connections I'm talking about serve to complete an *incomplete* concept. Explaining the ways a concept can be incomplete would take more time and it's not very relevant. But if you want to know, ask.

    2) Extending the point about presentation, there are reasons that a female entering a male-dominated field, and vice versa, would possibly be at a disadvantage. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a) women think best using language, while men think best using pictures and b) people use the form of communication they think best in. !They're only assumptions! A field dominated by men would use mostly pictures in its communication. A woman in this field is then forced to communicate in the form in which they do not think best, putting them at a comparative disadvantage. This argument can be greatly strenghtened and extended, but I'm trying to make this quick and not be a hog. :devil:

    Happy thoughts,
  15. Nov 26, 2004 #14

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    It might also be worth noting that grad school years tend to coincide with prime childbearing years. I can see this as a strong reason why there would be less women applying to grad school overall. Dracovich made an interesting comment about men having an ability to focus intensly on one thing. It's not easy to have that kind of single focus when you've got one eye on your textbook and another on your two-year-old. :smile:

    I don't think that admissions standards should be lowered. If a person can make the cut, he/she should be able to enter the program. The people who enter the program should be the ones who are most prepared to handle the work.

    I would still like to see some actual compiled GRE score data and get a better idea of the population variance. I did some googling with keywords "GRE scores women physics" and this site kept popping up over and over and over:
    I don't think I have to tell you why I find its numbers a little "suspect".

    I found some studies on minority scores on the gre.org website, but I haven't had a chance to read them yet. I am going to take a look at them when I am back in the office next week and have a faster connection for downloading the reports.
  16. Nov 26, 2004 #15
    I think the only difference is that women can identify with real life problems and social issues a lot easier than they can identify with physics concepts and things that you can't see. It's not easy to identify with things like "moment of inertia". For someone like me, I can understand this concept because I just accepted that it exists the first time I heard about it. I can almost visualize it and have some sense of what it is. If you ask a girl who was in the same physics class as me what moment of intertia is she would probably have trouble answering. Not because she didn't do her homework or because she didn't pay attention, but because it's not as easy for her to just accept something that she can't see.

    On the other hand, if you ask a woman about ideas to solve an AIDS problem in a small country, she would instantly come up with ideas that can solve the problem. If you ask me how to solve an AIDS problem in a small country, I'd say..."Uh...stop people from having sex?" And that would probably be the best solution I have.

    If you tell a woman to choose between two tasks: To build a car or build confidence in the most shy, diffident person in the world and make that person the bravest one. What do you think a woman would choose? I personally would choose to build a car. I would think most women would choose the second choice. I don't know about most men but I wouldn't have the patience or the abilities to change the most shy person to the bravest one. In short, I think men like to build machines and women like to build people. That's why more men like physics than women (I think).

    I just came up with all that outta the blue so I'll probably get some replies that will tear my ideas apart and make me look stupid :grumpy:. Go ahead and post if you object to what I'm saying but please don't be offended by it or something, because that's just what I think and it might very well be wrong.
  17. Nov 26, 2004 #16

    Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel! While I agree with you that the CHOICE of profession may be more influenced by social roles than individual abilities, I believe that the superior performance of men over women in physics is due to inherent differences. Even if women did not spend time in the kitchen and young boys did not spend more time in the garage, and a girl and boy were trained the same way, I believe the boy would have a higher potential. jcsd's theory may be able to explain this
  18. Nov 26, 2004 #17
    The results may be questionable, but assuming they are for the most part accurate, is the discrepancy between Asians and non-Asians caused by the same factors as between men and women?

    What is cranial capacity anyways?

    Anyways, I'm just curious to get your thoughts on this, since I will be applying to grad school and competing with other men and women and will have to live with the results of the selection process even if it affects only others and not me.
  19. Nov 26, 2004 #18


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    Even discounting the possible differences in raw ability, there seem to be several factors working against women having a successful career in physics.

    Most women do not like taking risks. Going for a research career in physics is a huge investment in time with relatively little chance of success. Even if you do get a job, the interesting discoveries usually require a lot of risk. Maybe the competition also turns some women off?

    Also, women are less likely to be willing to neglect personal relationships for a career. You have to work a lot in physics, and there's really no way to get around that. This is also related to the fact that a lot of women want to raise a child at some point. There's too much competition in physics to allow any significant time off for that sort of thing.

    For whatever reasons, I haven't met very many women who really enjoy physics or math beyond a superficial level. It seems to be a pretty clear difference, although it's hard to say how much is nature vs. nurture.

    I also think that it is important to note that looking at studies which try to compare "averaged intelligence" in various ways aren't very useful. The average person of either sex has no chance to succeed in physics. The important numbers would be those describing the extreme upper tail of the "intelligence distribution," which are very hard to obtain in any meaningful way. Anecdotally, the most intelligent people I've known were all men. The most idiotic were also men.
  20. Nov 26, 2004 #19

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    Cranial capacity is a measure of skull volume. The theory of a relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence has been pretty thoroughly debunked.

    Here is a good website with more info:

    ... In the nineteenth century scholars such as Samuel George Morton attempted to prove that some "races" were superior to others by measuring the cranial capacity (brain size) of skulls representing different groups (e.g. "Blacks," "American Indians," "Whites"); his concluded, based on his measurements, that Whites were superior to other groups.

    Almost a century later, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould described in his book, The Mismeasure of Man, how he remeasured the same skulls used by Morton. He discovered that Morton must have attempted to confirm to himself what he and other Americans already "knew": that whites were superior to blacks and to Indians. He did this by accepting data that confirmed his biases, and rejecting data that did not support them. For example, he included in his sample of black skulls more females than he included in the white sample. In his American Indian sample, he included more small-brained Inca skulls than large-brain Iroquois skulls. In addition, he omitted small-sized Hindu skulls from his white sample. In fact when Gould remeasured the skulls, he found that the average size of black male skulls was larger than that of white males. He know now that skull size or cranial capacity tells us nothing about intelligence, but in the nineteenth century such "scientific" efforts were used by people to legitimate their racial biases.
  21. Nov 26, 2004 #20


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    How do you arrive at that conclusion? What is wrong with the short argument I made in post #13 part 2?
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